Make That Tea For Two: Looking At Microsoft's Patents

Lest you think I was discriminating against Apple in my examination of that companyis patents, letis take a look at the brilliant designs, network technology, and Digital Rights Management (DRM) systems cooked up at Microsoft. These include both design patents and utility patents, which are different. Please refer to my explanation on those differences, and how they may apply to Apple, for more information. In the meanwhile, enjoy the breathtaking and innovation shattering ornamental designs below, along with some vexing patents on such things as digital rights management.

Not to be outdone by Appleis design patents on the iPod and PowerBook, Microsoft has secured its own on the "Depressible key for a keyboard" and the "Scroll wheel region for an electronic input device" (e.g., scroll wheel for a mouse).

Interestingly, Microsoft does not seem to be pursuing as many design patents on user interface elements as Apple. Apparently, Microsoft secures design patents mostly on things like keyboards, mice and fonts. Still, it was proud enough of the following icons to pursue and secure a design patent as well.

Network Technology
Next up is a little ditty dealing with instant messaging (IM) and activity status. This utility patent seems to deal with letting others know youire active as long as youire doing something (e.g., typing your instant messages) within a set time period, and letting others know youire inactive if you fail to do anything within that set time period. Inspiring. So if youire making (using or selling) IM software like that, you might want to check out Microsoftis utility patent for a "System and method for activity monitoring and reporting in a computer network."

Microsoft also seems to own the ability to convert file paths into a Uniform Resource Locator (URL) with its utility patent on a "System and method for converting a file system path into a uniform resource locator." The patent asserts that "in generating a response to an HTTP request, the URL is converted into a file system path…[h]owever, there are no prior art methods for converting the file system path into a URL." So if you somehow map local file locations up onto the Internet in the form of URLs, which I imagine maybe somewhat common with some Web server applications, you might want to take a quick look at the above patent.

Microsoft has been busy working on E-mail signatures as well. Their "System and method for creating and inserting multiple data fragments into an electronic mail message" seems to deal with inserting varying signatures in your E-mails based on context. So Microsoftis "system" would put signature-A in a new E-mail, and a different signature-B into replying E-mails. Spiffy.

If you were having a difficult time dealing with such breakneck innovation and were heading off to watch TV on your TiVo, stop right there. You say youire a TiVo fan? Well Microsoft seems to like that kind of thing too. In its patent application for "Remotely accessing and programming a set top box," it seems to be claiming the ability to schedule the recording of shows from anywhere over the Internet. TiVo announced this kind of functionality in December of 2002 and Microsoft filed the application in June of 2001. It will be interesting to see how that works out because in the US the person who invents first, and not who files first, wins the patent race.

You may think more kindly of Appleis digital rights management patent, after you check out Microsoftis notions on securing digital content. Microsoft, being ever so modest and understated in naming its patent application for a "Method and system for discouraging unauthorized copying of a computer program," makes Apple look like a bunch of DRM rank amateurs. Microsoftis patent application describes a brave new world where transponders are affixed onto software media (i.e., onto the CD itself).

With such a DRM system, before the software on the CD could install on your computer, a radio frequency reader device would query for the transponder to authorize installation on the computer. If the CD contains no authorizing transponder (like on a backup copy), then no software installs from the CD. Itis a little bit like having a prisoneris radio-tracking ankle bracelet on your software -- or perhaps more accurately said, on Microsoftis software.

In another DRM related patent application, titled "Protection of content stored on portable memory from unauthorized usage," Microsoft details making a device that "includes a feature that makes it adapted to read or write [to] specially-configured portable memories that are incompatible with standard read/write devices." (emphasis added) The abstract further details that:

"[t]he feature included in the device is preferably a proprietary and/or hardware feature, so that counterfeit devices incorporating the feature cannot be built without overcoming economic and/or legal hurdles." (emphasis added)

The basic strategy seems to be one owing to Monty Python. Microsoft plans on making special contraptions that write naughty bits onto memory. No one else may have these naughty bit writing devices without "overcoming economic and/or legal hurdles." All your naughty bits are belong to us.

Whatis It All Mean?
Well, for one, Apple is not alone in securing mundane designs with patents. The difference seems to be that Appleis lawyers are more up to date on securing user interface elements with design patents than Microsoftis lawyers (although in fairness, Microsoftis lawyers have had their hands full over the last few years). Seemingly, instead of wasting time on design patents, Microsoft goes all out on utility patents, which generally offer far broader protection.

In fact, Apple has approximately 237 issued design patents to Microsoftis 130. In stark contrast, Microsoft has approximately 2,385 issued utility patents to Appleis 1,418.

One other amusing statistic is that Bill Gates seems to be named in only one issued patent (and heis not even the first named inventor). In contrast, Steve Jobs seems to be the first named inventor of almost half of the 20 patents to which he contributed (two of which were utility patents and the rest were design patents; he got three of the patents while at NeXT).

In the end, while Apple is perceived to drive advances in the computer industry more often than Microsoft, it doesnit bother to secure as many patents; in a sense, dedicating more of its innovations to the public.



John Kheit is an attorney. Please donit hold that against him. This work does not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of The Mac Observer or even John for that matter. No assertions of fact are being made, but rather the reader is simply asked to consider the possibilities.